How Not to Do Apologetics: Dark Example from the ‘Tentative Apologist’ Randal Rauser
A video from the self-styled “Tentative Apologist” Randal Rauser has roused me to wake up this website again. I think he thinks he’s defending progressive Christianity. I’m no progressive Christian myself, but if I were, I would ask him to quit. It isn’t just that I disagree with Rauser’s conclusions. This video is riddled throughout with objectively identifiable failures in logic, a complete disregard for evidence, and a reprehensible rush to condemn a follower of Christ based on (I’ll say it again) objectively identifiable misrepresentations.
Let’s note right at the outset: This video thumbnail represents Rauser’s view of Sean McDowell. It does not represent reality, as I will show below.
I will speak to Rauser as I list the problems in his message. I will keep it pointed at his use or misuse of evidence, logic, and assumptions, so that none of this needs to depend on liking or disliking Sean McDowell. Sean is a friend of mine. I doubt Randal Rauser would say the same, but he doesn’t need to, if he cares about those three factors: evidence, logic, and assumptions. That’s where I’ll be focusing here.
- You say early on that McDowell implies that fuzzy boundaries around progressive Christianity constitute a problem for it. I agree that would be a rather silly thing to say if he said it, but he didn’t. Not even close. He does say it makes it hard to construct an answer to the question that applies to all persons who might consider themselves or by labeled by others as progressive Christians.
- Your fisking of Sean’s “caveat” concerning counterexamples (at 3:15) is once again a critique of something he didn’t say. He doesn’t say it here in this video, and you give us no reason to believe he says it anywhere. How can you possibly consider this a problematic rhetorical maneuver on his part, when you give us no reason to believe he’s even making such a maneuver?
- You make a big deal out of the fact that Christians differ over the nature of atonement or salvation, and therefore there many answers that may be candidates for being correct or true. That much we all agree with. But you present it as if it were some kind of rebuttal to McDowell’s view of progressive Christianity, which it manifestly is not.
In order to be a rebuttal, you would have to demonstrate either that (a) progressive Christian beliefs do not tend to fall outside of that range of potentially true beliefs, or (b) Sean McDowell’s acceptable range is much more narrow than it should be. You do not attempt (a) in any way. You do throw (b) at us — especially in your video’s opening cartoon — but you offer no evidence for its being true, beyond your own assumptions. It happens to be false, as I know from Sean’s wider body of work, but one need not agree with that or even know it in order to recognize the point I am making in this paragraph, which is that your argument fails for lack of evidence.
- You say at 8:10 that “Sean McDowell is assuming without argument.” Not only is that sadly ironic in view of your own assumptions already mentioned, it’s also specious, illegitimate, and wrong. Consider that you yourself described this video of his as a “short.” Shorts are summaries. Summaries do not usually present entire arguments. Their statements may therefore be founded or unfounded, depending on whether the foundation for them exists in other sources, especially the person’s larger body of work. Therefore the fact that a statement is presented without accompanying foundation in such a short summary as this one means nothing on its own. You need to examine McDowell’s other work to find out whether he can support his statements. You don’t bother doing that; instead, you draw an unfounded conclusion of your own.
The same answer does not apply to your video, by the way. Your video here is not a summary, it is a fisking, and fiskings require argument. To be charitable, since it is a short fisking, I would count it acceptable if you indicated somehow that your conclusion was drawn from what you’ve studied in his larger body of work. You don’t even do that.
- Worse yet, you say (and I quote) he’s claiming that the “mere existence of difference” is sufficient to constitute a different religion. Your claim there is unevidenced, to begin with, since he says no such thing here. Once again you commit the easily identifiable error or speaking without evidence. It’s also false. Sean makes no such claim anywhere. I know him and his work well enough to know: He very clearly believes that it is not the mere existence of difference, but rather the nature and degree of difference, that determines whether another set of beliefs constitutes a different religion.
Again, you say at 8:45 (while still on this same point) that he assumes this point without argument. No, you assume that he assumes it. And you assume it with neither evidence nor argument. You are clearly committing the fault of which you accuse him.
- You complain near the end that Sean McDowell identifies evangelicalism with historic Christianity. I wondered where you got that from, since he came nowhere near saying such a thing in that final clip, so I searched through it to see. The closest thing I found was back at around 1:20 in your video, where he says progressive Christianity is “a different faith system than conservative Christianity or evangelicalism, and I would argue the historic Christian church.” If that’s where you got that conclusion from, it’s specious and unfounded. Suppose I said, “American football is different from English football (what Americans call soccer), from rugby, and I would argue Canadian football as well.” Would that mean I was identifying Canadian football with rugby or soccer? Hardly. You present no evidence of him making the identification you claim he makes.
Besides that, do you actually dispute what he said near the end, that “progressive Christianity and conservative Christianity are actually two different things.” At 10:45 you misquote him on that, but at least it’s something McDowell might say. Again, though, do you doubt that progressive Christianity differs from conservative evangelical Christianity?
- Your summation after the final McDowell clip is a straw man along the same grossly erroneous lines as your cartoonish opening video thumbnail. McDowell very decidedly does not say, as you represent him saying (I am quoting you here now), “If you differ with the conservative evangelical in any respect, you’ve rejected historic Christianity.” Especially since, by your own examples, you imply that he would grind that difference as fine as agreement with the Chicago Statement and rejecting evolutionary theory.
If you found him telling the world that C.S. Lewis wasn’t a true Christian, then you might have evidence that he believed such a thing. You won’t find that or anything remotely like it. What you present here is a very serious misrepresentation, and I call upon you to withdraw it. There’s a lot here you would do well to retract for the sake of accuracy and fairness, but that error in particular is false, wrong, unfair to Sean McDowell, and damaging to Christian discourse.
In this video you purport to speak with a fair degree of seriousness, even some authority, in critiquing the “cultic” “radical sectarianism” McDowell supposedly espouses. What you’ve accomplished instead, unfortunately, is a mass (and a mess) of poor logic founded upon completely unevidenced criticism and a series of outright misrepresentations.
You attribute some pretty ridiculous and reprehensible beliefs to Sean McDowell falsely. Your doing so is itself utterly reprehensible. It doesn’t matter how much you may dislike him. If you care about honesty, you need to withdraw these false statements. You can disagree with him all you like. Just disagree honestly, okay?
And if you’re going to present yourself as an apologist, do try to work on the quality of your argument, too, please. I try to train people in evidence and in logic. This doesn’t help anyone. Not one bit.
Tom, I’m glad you wrote this article. Randal Rauser’s online behavior is atrocious. Sean is only one of many traditional Christians who Rauser attacks via a litany of ad hominems and demeaning personal rhetoric. It is a shame what Rauser has become, especially considering that at one time he wrote some decent theology. Now he is just a bitter bloviator. It is time that people stop paying him credence or inviting him on their shows. He even wrote a book recently where he pretends to be a fundamentalist Christian apologist called “Christian Bellows.” It’s truly poor form.
Well, the art of fallacy is rampant, as usual. I don’t say much about faith or religion. Hitchens said enough. The best any of us can do is steer clear, seems to me.
Rauser has a legitimate complaint. He’s reacting like most of us if we were told that our form of Christianity was “Another Gospel” or religion—and as Rauser points out, without an actual case made against our beliefs that was more than allegations.
BUT the most telling thing in all of this is that none the leading apologists like McDowell, Childers, Turek, Koukl, Gilson, et. al., will formally debate Rauser.
And it’s not because Rauser is a nobody. He’s obviously sharp, has a Ph.D, has written over a dozen books, and has been in debates with other heavyweights on major venues like the “Unbelievable?” Show (and he’s always civil and gracious in those venues—go see for yourself).
So again, why are all the heavyweight apologists refusing to step up and publicly debate him? If he’s wrong take him on and demonstrate that such is the case once and for all. Failing to do so is, again, most telling.
I would not interact with him again, precisely because of his refusal to interact with me on the issues I raised here.
Like you, he insisted on talking about problems he perceives in McDowell and Childers. He refused even to look at the manifest falsehoods and logical errors that I identified in this blog post. Repeatedly he demanded that I talk about something else instead, to the point that it was clear he was trying to control me. I have not tried to control him.
His refusal to pay a moment’s attention to these objectively identifiable errors is telling. One has to wonder: Does he lack the competence to discern a logical fallacy or a failure of evidence? That seems unlikely. Does he not care about his integrity? That seems unlikely, too. I don’t know how else to understand it, though. Is there a third option?
What I do know is that it seems pointless to enter into debate with someone whose response to an identified error is to ignore it and change the subject. That’s not debate, it’s not even dialogue. It gives me no reason to expect that we could have anything better than a pseudo-dialogue.
Finally, his extreme misrepresentation of Sean McDowell here is, besides all the above, rude. You make a special point if his being civil in some venues, almost as we should be surprised. I am aware of his being civil in some places. I do find it somewhat pleasantly surprising.
You say something is telling. You are right. Do not conclude, however, that what it “tells” is that any of us are afraid to defend our positions against him. It has more to do with recognizing there’s no point in subjecting oneself to such rudeness and misrepresentation for the sake of pseudo-dialogue.
Paul D. VanPelt, there is nothing about faith or religion that is inherently more prone to fallacy than anything else, and in my experience, documented in True Reason, atheists tend to consider themselves the party of reason but actually don’t come off doing so well themselves.
I appreciate you taking the time to write. Your critique seems fair, and reasonable. Without feedback, it can be hard to improve… and I hope that Rauser takes the opportunity to do so.